If you look at some of the raw numbers, Lou Williams played well last year. He had a PER of 17.7. He hit 34.4% of his 3 pointers and got to the foul line a ton. As a key rotation player who split time as a starter and reserve, Williams was the team’s 3rd leading scorer, was their 2nd best shooter based on true shooting percentage. Ultimately, he played exactly how one would expect Lou Williams to play. For the $7 million the Lakers paid him, I’d say he represented decent value.
All of the above is not all there is to consider with Williams, however. He does not play good defense. He has a tendency to highjack possessions, dribbling a lot and either looking for his own shot or looking to draw a foul. He had the third highest usage rate on the team and played more point guard than I imagined he would when he was first signed.
Don’t get me wrong, these are all things you can live with. In fact, when you have Williams on your team, these are the things you will have to live with. They are hallmarks of his game. Normally the trade off between what he brings offensively and how he goes about providing those things tilts enough in his favor where he can be viewed as a net positive. Last year that was mostly the case, though I know fans would have preferred to have seen some of his minutes go to D’Angelo Russell or Jordan Clarkson. That’s a coaching decision, however, and not the player’s.
Which brings us to this season. The Lakers have a new coach. They are expecting — or at least they should be — for D’Angelo Russell to make a big leap forward in his 2nd season. They also just signed Jordan Clarkson to a 4 year/$50 million contract. And then, of course, they drafted Brandon Ingram, signed Luol Deng in free agency, traded for Jose Calderon, and re-upped Marcelo Huertas. Suddenly, the backcourt and wing are much more crowded than they were when the season ended and Kobe Bryant retired.
This begs the question — where does Lou Williams fit? Honestly, I am having a hard time answering this question.
The things Williams does well are needed on every team. Look at most every contender (non-Warriors division) and they have a similar player to Lou. A guy who gets buckets; a guy can get hot enough to carry the offense for a stretch. Williams could easily be that player for the Lakers next year. He could play behind Clarkson, get his shots up, draw some fouls, get to the line, and average 10-12 points a night.
The thing is, though, I wonder if these Lakers really need that. With the current roster construction, an argument could be made that the Lakers should simply be playing Clarkson and Russell 30-35 minutes a night. Then, with the remaining backcourt minutes, maybe get Ingram a few minutes at SG and then play a combination of Huertas and Calderon at PG to be facilitators who help the other ball-needy players on the team shots.
After all, this team will still have Randle, Ingram, and Deng as medium to high usage players who need the ball too. Add in Nance and Mozgov (both finishers who will need setting up), and using guards who move the ball more freely and look to set up teammates rather than score have real value. Williams is more likely to take shots away from those players than to help get them the ball the way that Calderon or Huertas would.
This is nothing against Williams. He’s a fine scoring guard. I even think in an offense which focuses more on ball and player movement, he would be a better passer than he showed last year. But a tiger doesn’t change his stripes. Williams has made his career on getting buckets and to think some radical shift is coming would be silly. It’d be one thing if he was a strong defender who was impacting the game on the other end of the floor, but he’s not.
In an ideal world, the Lakers would be complementing their current young guards with a lower usage, three point shooting, defensive ace. Because what Clarkson and Russell need most is a player who works off of their strengths while helping to cover for their weaknesses. In a way, Williams does the opposite. While he can play off them as as shooter, he’s also likely to use possessions at too high a rate and not be able to defend effectively enough to shift them off of the tougher assignments.
With all that, I go back to wondering where Lou fits on this team. I could easily see him playing the role Barbosa/Ian Clark played for the Warriors last season. But neither of those guys played 70 games and neither came close to averaging 20 minutes a night. Lou hasn’t played under 23 mpg since his 2nd season. And while it’s one thing for a guy to sacrifice minutes on a winning team while sitting behind all-stars, it’s another to do so for a team that projects to win under 40 games while developing young players at your position.
I’m not saying Williams should be traded or that he has to go. My guess is that he plays the same role he has the rest of his career and that Walton finds ways to get him on the floor to play his game. But the fit isn’t as clean as it was last year and that fit already wasn’t ideal. This is something worth keeping an eye on.